It was December 31, 1958. New Year's Eve in Cuba. Thousands of partiers were gambling in the island's famous Havana casinos--among them the Flamingo, Riviera, Tropicana, Hilton and Capri. The reveling ended, however, with word that Cuban President Fulgencio Batista had fled the country, leaving it to revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. With a new government poised to take control of the island in the coming days, Cuban peasants sacked the casinos that had long barred them from entering. Gaming tables and slot machines were avenues.
Nearly 30 years later, the value of those chips has been restored many times over. Cuban chips have become prized possessions to many within the expanding cadre of casino chip collectors.
It's not the value of Cuban chips, however, that attract most of today's collectors.
"I felt they had true beauty, the artwork and history behind them," says one New York chip collector who doesn't want his identity known, should it make it more difficult for him to bring chips out of Cuba. "The reason I started collecting Cuban chips is because the casino business is interwoven with the history of Cuba. It is one of the few places where there was an immediate cessation of gambling--at midnight on December 31st, 1958. The Revolution and antigaming sentiment is interwoven."
While a handful of enthusiasts around the world collect Cuban chips, it is the modern-day gaming chip, primarily from the post-Second World War era in Las Vegas, that is most prized by the majority of collectors. That period is bracketed by the first hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip, the El Rancho Vegas, which opened in 1941 and closed in 1960, and the strip's latest gaming establishment, New York-New York, which opened in early 1997.
Ten years ago, casino chip collectors in the United States numbered fewer than 25. Many of them were gamblers who slipped a chip into their pocket as a memento of the action. Today, there are approximately 2,000 active members in the nonprofit Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club (CC>CC), making it the largest specialty club within the American Numismatic Association. At the club's 1997 convention at the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas, collectors bid a total of $47,000 at auction for a variety of casino chips.
The growth of the hobby has been nothing less than unbelievable to longtime collectors, many of whom thought they were the only ones quirky enough to care for little, round pieces of clay and plastic stamped with the names of long-forgotten casinos. Two recent developments have fueled collector interest in casino chips. The first is the steady spread of gambling across the United States. "Every time a new gaming jurisdiction opens up, the people from that area become instant chip collectors," says CC>CC founder and president Archie Black. The second reason may be evident to anyone who's visited a casino in the past few years. New computer-aided design capabilities, laser-etching technologies and manufacturing techniques now allow manufacturers to produce chips with beautiful full-color designs and photographs. Today's chips rarely have only the denomination and casino name stamped on either side.
Most casinos now regularly issue limited editions of chips to commemorate casino events: a George Foreman fight chip from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, a George Burns 100th birthday chip from Caesars Palace Las Vegas, a Luciano Pavarotti chip from Foxwoods in Connecticut and Resorts International in Atlantic City, and a Kentucky Derby chip from the Tropicana in Las Vegas and in Atlantic City. These commemorative chips are "live" and can be used at the gaming tables, though they're usually snapped up by collectors within days of their issue.
The beauty of collecting casino chips lies in their value from the onset. Most other collectibles lose value after being bought at retail and then may slowly appreciate. Baseball cards, for example, become valuable only after certain star players have noteworthy careers. The majority of all other cards remain worthless. That's not the case with casino chips. "If you buy a chip off the table at face value, you can always cash it back in for exactly what you paid for it," says Black. "If the casino goes bankrupt or changes name, the chip is worth even more."
While collectors enjoy watching the value of their collections grow, most acquire chips today because they are drawn to the history of towns such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Havana. "When I was growing up here, I remember certain clubs that are no longer downtown or on the Strip," says Ron Lurie, who was mayor of Las Vegas from 1987 to 1991 and is now the director of marketing for Arizona Charlie's hotel and casino. "There was the Lucky Club, Diamond Jim's, the Boulder Club and one special club--the Pussycat a'GoGo. They had one little craps table and one 21 table. It was just a place to go to dance and hang out for people of our age. That's where I met my wife." When Lurie started collecting casino chips two years ago, he went about acquiring the usual commemorative chips as well as those from the old Las Vegas casinos. Lurie now has about 700 chips in his collection, but it's a single chip from the Pussycat a'GoGo, now worth about $75, that is one of his prized possessions.
These days, almost everyone who collects casino chips, also called checks or sometimes cheques, has a subspecialty. With an estimated 12,000 legal and illegal casinos known to have operated worldwide between 1900 and 1997, according to longtime chip collector and gaming historian Howard Herz, too many variations and denominations exist for all of them to be collected. Chip collectors typically collect by region, with the most popular being casinos from Las Vegas, followed by other gaming towns in Nevada such as Lake Tahoe, Reno and Laughlin. Atlantic City is the next most popular specialty, followed by--in no particular order--riverboats, Colorado (which legalized gambling in 1991), Indian reservations, cruise ships and non-U.S. casinos.
By far, the most popular niche within the hobby is collecting obsolete chips from casinos in the Silver State, preferably those from Las Vegas. Typically, chips become obsolete in one of three ways: (1) the casino that issued them goes out of business--the Playboy casino in Atlantic City or the Dunes in Las Vegas, for example; (2) the casino changes its name or ownership and issues chips under the new name; or (3) the casino changes chip design or manufacturer. "Everyday chips become valuable once they're obsolete," explains Black. "You take people for granted until they're gone; it's the same way with chips."
High-denomination chips are particularly valuable to the collector of obsolete chips. A $100 chip from Benny "Bugsy" Siegel's two-year, 1946-1947 reign at the original Flamingo in Las Vegas sold for $3,500 at CC>CC's 1997 auction. A 1950s-era $100 chip from the Dunes sells for about $2,500. A $100 chip from The Brighton in Atlantic City, now the Sands Hotel and Casino, sells in the low four figures.
"Most gamblers may have taken a $1 chip home with them, but how many would leave the casino with a $100 chip in their pocket," says Bill Akeman Jr., who publishes Gaming Times magazine, a glossy publication devoted to the history and collectibility of chips, dice and other gaming memorabilia. He also operates a retail store in Las Vegas under the same name and his personal collection runs to 10,000 chips.
An obsolete chip doesn't have to be old to be valuable, however. For example, one of the rarest is a $5 chip from the Golden Goose casino in Las Vegas, which operated from 1975 to 1980. The Fremont Street casino was slots only, except for two weeks when it had several gaming tables. Only one chip is known to have survived from the Golden Goose, and it sold for $3,000 at a CC>CC auction in 1996. Another recent rarity comes from the Club Royale cruise ship, which once sailed out of Florida. The Club Royale sank in 1995 after failing to outrun Hurricane Erin, making chips from the ship some of the most valuable Florida chips available today, according to Florida chip collector Mark Lighterman. One-dollar chips from the 1940s and 1950s are also surprisingly valuable. That is because they were not created in great numbers. Most casinos at the time used silver dollar coins instead of $1 chips. It's not unusual for older $1 chips to sell for upwards of $50.
Many collectors shave their area of interest even finer. Some collect chips only from California's card rooms, which have been legal since the 1880s. Others collect chips only from illegal gambling clubs in places like the formerly wide open towns of Newport, Kentucky, and Beaumont, Texas. Most of the illegal gaming in those towns ended in the early 1950s in the wake of hearings brought by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver.
Others get a kick out of owning chips from casinos associated with gangsters and celebrities such as Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo; Al Capone's Floridian Casino in Miami, in which Capone had a partial stake from 1929 to 1930; and Frank Sinatra's Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe, which the singer owned from 1955 to 1968 but sold after voluntarily surrendering his gaming license because the casino was frequented by known mobsters.
Still other collectors specialize in roulette chips. Nondenominational chips of various color and design that can be played at only roulette wheels, they are often produced in significantly smaller quantities than other table chips (a house may have only 300 or so in each color and design) and are used to help identify which player has placed which bet on the felt table. Casinos frown on chip collectors taking roulette chips, because wheel chips are worth whatever a player buys in for. Therefore, a chip bought for $5 one day could be surreptitiously placed into a game the next day when the same chip is worth $25. The croupiers' watchful eyes cannot detect every roulette chip that is taken. When Resorts in Atlantic City introduced colorful roulette chips manufactured by a company called Chipco several years ago, so many chips were taken, or "walked" in the parlance of casino executives, that the casino was forced to remove them from play. Today, the two rarest roulette chips from that set, the ones with purple star and brown camera designs, sell for $750 each. Monaco's Société des Bains de Mer casino recently issued 14 different Chipco roulette chips, which are now worth $50 apiece to collectors.
For many collectors, it's the hunt for obsolete chips that excites them. One collector says he found dozens of chips from the Little Club, which operated on Fremont Street in Las Vegas in the 1940s and early 1950s, in the recreation room at an old-age home. The residents were using them for their evening card games.
When chip collectors talk history, the conversation often turns to the most wide-open gambling town of the 1950s-- Havana, Cuba. With Senator Kefauver shutting down illegal gaming across the United States, casino owners were left with only two nearby areas in which to relocate legally, Nevada and Cuba. Meyer Lansky, the Jewish godfather who bankrolled Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo, set up operations in both Havana and Las Vegas.
Lansky owned a piece of the Hotel Nacional, the Habana Riviera and the Casino de Capri in Havana. (A Meyer Lansky-like character was portrayed by actor Lee Strasberg in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II, carving up Havana's gambling among various mob bosses.) The Capri attracted many of the Hollywood elite, who were permitted to gamble on the airplane ride from Miami to Havana. Actor George Raft was the full-time host of the Capri's Salon Rojo. Because of the casino's popularity, its chips are some of the most plentiful of those from Cuba, though they are found in significantly smaller numbers than those from most popular Las Vegas casinos. Chips from the Capri typically range in value from $20 to $75.
One of the premier collectors of Cuban chips, Henry Garrett, has traced 80 casinos that existed in Cuba from 1840 to 1958. Those casinos issued as many as 600 different chips. The Tropicana alone issued approximately 75 different chips between 1941 and 1958. Of those 600 different chips, however, Garrett believes as many as 150 are unique or nearly unique--meaning only one, or two at the most, have ever been seen in the collectibles market. Garrett buys many of his chips from baseball card dealers who regularly do business in Cuba. The island nation has been baseball crazy since the days when many of the Major League teams had spring training sites there. Garrett believes there are about two dozen serious collectors of Cuban chips in the United States, though many others count at least one Cuban chip in their collections. Garrett also suspects there are many "closet collectors" among Cuban nationals in Florida and elsewhere.
For collectors, the most popular Cuban chips are the ones that have the word Havana, or, in some cases, Habana, printed on them. The Habana Hilton and Habana Riviera are two casinos that produced chips that have become extremely collectable for that reason. Other valuable and scarce pre-Castro chips came from the Havana Yacht Club, considered Havana's premier private social club. As the story goes, the owner of the club fled Cuba within days of the Revolution, bringing with him 60,000 to 70,000 of his club's casino chips and stashing them on his escape yacht. For whatever reason, he threw the chips overboard. The few chips that survive today are those that walked out of the casino in patrons' pockets.
"People are scavenging Spanish galleons; maybe they'll be doing the same for chips one day," says one collector.
In the last year or two, however, chips from Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos have steadily risen in value, while the prices of Cuban chips have plummeted. The reason, say collectors, is tied to uncertainty over the island's political future. Few Cuban chips are in the hands of collectors today, but many collectors believe that warehouses full of chips could come onto the market should Cuba be opened to the United States. Thousands of Cuban citizens could have chips stashed away in coffee cans and drawers. "The fact that slot machines and bigger collectibles that should have shown up from Cuba have not," says Garrett, "means this stuff could still be there. People are waiting to see where the price settles."
The result has been a precipitous drop in prices for Cuban chips. Most sell in the $20-to-$50 range, a far cry from the $200 to $500 they were realizing just two years ago. Even the most desired Cuban chips are not immune. A Cuban check from Wilbur Clark's casino (Clark went on to open the Desert Inn in Las Vegas) that went for $1,000 two years ago now sells for $200.
Still "Cuban chips are extremely important," says Herz, who in the 1960s created the first museum-quality collection of chips and gaming archives for Harvey's casino in Lake Tahoe. "People have a genuine reluctance to buy them, but they will have to get over that because these chips are historically significant."
Today, the hottest chip collectible is the limited-edition commemorative chip. Although casinos have tens of thousands of their everyday house chips, commemoratives are usually manufactured in small editions ranging from 500 to 5,000 and are typically issued in $5 denominations, though some go higher. For the last Mike Tyson/Evander Holyfield fight, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas issued $100 and $500 commemorative chips. "For a collector, limited chips are where it's happening," says Lurie. "If the edition is under 1,000 I'll invest in them. Anything under 1,000 you'll have trouble finding, but the value will go up fast."
Here are some examples of commemorative chips in demand: a $5 Valentine's Day chip issued in l997 by Harrah's Atlantic City now sells for $60, a $5 Donald Trump/Marla Maples wedding chip issued by the Taj Mahal sells for about $45, a $5 George Burns 100th birthday chip issued by Caesars Palace in Las Vegas sells for about $30, and a $5 Betty Boop chip issued by the MGM Grand in Las Vegas sells for $35.
"Commemorative chips have changed the face of chip collecting," says Gene Trimble, the keno manager at the Fiesta casino in Las Vegas, who has more than5,000 chips in his collection. "It's brought more new collectors to the hobby. Before commemoratives, casinos would never tell you how many chips they made. "
But limited-edition chips have also been responsible for a great deal of hand-wringing among collectors. "There is such a glut of new chips I don't know if there will be a demand five years from now," says Bob Mera, an Atlantic City native and former dealer who owns the Gaming Emporium on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. "You can buy 100 different $5 chips for $600; there is so much stuff."
Many traditionalists think casinos are taking advantage of collectors by flooding the market with new chips that seem to have little connection to gaming or true commemorative events. "A lot of collectors don't buy limited-edition chips because they're issued primarily for collectors, not for gambling," says Black. Nor do those chips spark the imaginations of collectors the way older, obsolete chips do. "They're not very meaningful," says Las Vegas native James Campiglia, a collector and historian who owns about 12,000 chips. "They've got pictures of bowlers and boxers and rodeo riders. With older, historical chips you think about Meyer Lanskyand the mob."
In a 16-month period from January 1996 to May 1997, Nevada casinos issued 415 commemorative chips, according to Casino Collectible Magazine. Fifty-nine Nevada casinos issued at leastone commemorative chip in 1996, with four casinos accounting for a whopping 36 percent of all commemorative issues: Four Queens, Las Vegas (43), Arizona Charlie's, Las Vegas (2
, Flamingo Hilton, Laughlin (25) and Flamingo Hilton, Reno (24). Purchasing one of every Nevada commemorative chip at face value in 1996 would have set a collector back $3,609.
The Fiesta casino in North Las Vegas issued the most commemorative chips through the first quarter of 1997 (15), followed by the Flamingo Hilton, Laughlin (12). Collectors say there is a simple reason why Four Queens issued the most chips in 1996 and why the Fiesta is leading so far in 1997. Gene Trimble, an avid chip collector, worked as Four Queens' chip coordinator before leaving in October 1996 to assume the same duties at the Fiesta. "The collector world is divided," says Trimble. "Collectors started going after casino managers and asked for more commemoratives. Now, all of a sudden, they say there's too many. But even the ones that complain still come in and get the chips."
Alhough Trimble admits he's as much at fault as anyone for the glut of chips on the market, it's hard to take offense at someone so enthusiastic about chip collecting. "This hobby is a hobby of the future," says Trimble, who grew up in Newport, Kentucky, and specializes in illegal gaming chips from that town. "If the number of collectors double, the value of my collection doubles. Everybody can buy these chips at face value, and they're beautiful. It gets to be a financial burden for some people, but chips are so easy to dump. You may not earn a lot of money, but you'll get your money back."
Many longtime collectors are less worried about the types and quantities of limited-edition chips constantly being issued than they are about speculators who seem to flood any collectible market that breaks into the mainstream. "Like anything that's growing, chip collecting tends to have its problems," says Herz. "People get in with more greed than knowledge. There are some problems with misrepresentation, people trying to exploit a nonexistent rarity to collectors. It is easy for people to get carried away in a market as hot as chips."
The problem of scarcity has been particularly acute with Cuban chips. Garrett says he has come across several unscrupulous dealers in recent years who have misrepresented certain Cuban chips. The scam goes like this: The dealer presents a chip to a collector as "the only one he's ever seen," and sells it for, say, $200 because of its supposed rarity. Several months later, the collector discovers the dealer has several more of the same chip. The value of the supposedly one-of-a-kind chip then plummets. "One of the problems with the hobby is we're so new and taking off so fast there is not much literature and few catalogs where you can find information about chips," says Black. "You have to depend on who you're dealing with."
As with other collectibles, education is the key to avoiding scams. With casino chips, part of that education is looking at a chip and knowing who made it and in approximately which year. Though a dozen or so companies have made chips over the last century, each with its own distinctive mold designs, only seven supply U.S. casinos today: Paul-Son Gaming Supplies, the Bud Jones Co. and R.T. Plastics, all three of which are based in Las Vegas; Chipco International, which is based in Windham, Maine; T.R. King, of Los Angeles; Atlantic Molding, of Portland, Maine; and Reliable, of Frazier Park, California. (There are several European companies that manufacture chips similar to those used in the United States, as well as lightweight jetons and rectangular plaques often seen in French casinos.)
The three largest manufacturers--Paul-Son, Bud Jones and Chipco--each use a different manufacturing process, and their chips are easily identifiable by collectors. Paul-Son and Bud Jones have made casino chips for five decades, while Chipco entered the market in 1985.
Paul-Son's chips are made through a compression-mold process and are identifiable by small, uneven colored stripes on the edge of a chip. The stripes have a "squished" look and appear to be painted on but are actually composed of small, colored inserts that are set into a mold. Under extremely high pressure, the inserts and surrounding plastic material are fused into one solid block. Many Paul-Son chips are also imprinted around the edge with the company's distinctive "hat and cane" mold. (The design was originally created decades ago by Christy & Jones Co., Bud Jones' first company, which was sold to Paul-Son when it dissolved in the 1960s.) Most of the casinos in Las Vegas use chips by Paul-Son, a third-generation company founded by Paul Endy Sr., which went public three years ago.
Bud Jones uses an injection-mold process. Instead of squeezing the chips, the process works by injecting plastic material around preformed lettering, denominations and patterns. This creates fine geometric patterns around the edge and rim of the chip. Bud Jones is also well known for its metal inlay chips, which have a metal "coin" embedded into the center.
Chipco's chips are made of an injection-molded ceramic material in one-piece construction. They usually have a non-slip sandpaper-like texture and are identified by full-color graphics that extend to the edge of the chip. Using a proprietary process, images are printed 5/1,000 of an inch deep into the chip's surface. Chipco chips are also known for stripes and designs on the rim, and the manufacturer is the only one to print denominations and lettering on the rims.
Paul-Son and Bud Jones credit Chipco with revolutionizing the chip business and fueling the collector market by introducing the first chips with full-color, photo-like graphics.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would blossom into the industry it has or begin to command the dollar value that collectors were willing to pay," says Chipco president John Kendall.
"We didn't make chips like that; they forced us to do it," Paul-Son senior vice president of sales Lou DeGregorio says about Chipco. "But when we saw where it was going with the market we moved fast. We painted a bull's-eye on them."
So did Bud Jones, who is bemused by all the attention casino chips have received in recent years. "I wish I had one of every chip I ever made," says Jones, who got into the business 50 years ago hand-drilling dice for a long-defunct company. The company is the world's leader in casino dice, and all Bud Jones-manufactured dice are hand-drilled to this day. "If I had, it would have dawned on me 10 years ago to retire."
Though few have played a greater role in the manufacture of casino chips, Jones has never been a collector himself and has no intention of starting today. "It's kind of like the postman going for a walk on his day off," he says. Jones, who along with his wife, Jean, was one of the first two inductees into International Gaming & Wagering Business magazine's hall of fame, isn't complaining, though. Casinos buy his chips for 59 cents to 75 cents each, making the company anywhere from $2,950 to $3,750 for every commemorative chip ordered in an edition of 5,000.
It's not the chip makers that are profiting the most from chip collectors, however. It's the casinos. For every $5 chip that walks, the casino earns more than $4 in pure profit. The El San Juan casino in Puerto Rico is believed to be the first casino to have bought a chip that ended up walking in major quantities. In November 1988, the casino ordered 15,000 $1 chips from Chipco that portrayed a person bouncing a beach ball in front of palm trees and the ocean.
"Those chips would normally last five years," says Kendall. "Within 30 days the casino ordered another 15,000. Six months later they ordered another15,000." And a market was born.
Caesars in Atlantic City is acknowledged as the first casino to introduce a commemorative chip to the boardwalk. The casino needed a new set of chips because of a counterfeiting problem, and also turned to Chipco. "In 1991 we were in a recession and looking for any conceivable way to improve performance," says Edward Sutor, Caesars' senior vice president of finance. "Here was a way to solve our problem of needing new chips and increasing our revenue. It's exceeded all of our expectations."
Not only did Caesars receive what it thought was a more secure chip, it discovered a sure-fire way to make money. Typically 90 to 95 percent of its commemorative chips walk. Caesars recently introduced one of the market's highest-denomination commemorative chips--a $25 anniversary chip in an edition of 50,000. When Caesars removed the chip from play, after about a year, only 900 remained. Taking into account the manufacturer's price of about 65 cents a chip, Caesars cleared a profit of nearly $1.2 million. "Every time one of the casinos' chips walks and doesn't get redeemed, it is like the casino writing a check that isn't cashed," says Black.
The Hard Rock casino in Las Vegas has become a big proponent of commemorative chips that feature photographs of rock musicians, and issues approximately one per month. "Hard Rock said they wanted funky-looking chips, so we worked with [owner] Peter Morton's design group, in Los Angeles, to come up with a line of chips," says DeGregorio. "They paid for all their casino equipment on profit they made on chips that walked out of the casino."
Harrah's Atlantic City, along with Caesars, was instrumental in issuing a special Miss America pageant chip that was jointly circulated in September 1997 by New Jersey's casinos--the first time all 12 banded together to issue a common chip.
Harrah's vice president of marketing, Susan Schneider, is a member of the pageant's board of directors, and she persuaded it to allow a photograph of the previous year's Miss America to grace one side of the commemorative chip. The obverse carried the name of the issuing casino. "We don't do it for the collector, we do it for our customers," says Schneider. "On the operations side it adds fun and excitement to the casino floor. But we realize the collector plays a part in this as well."
Even longtime holdouts against commemorative chips have decided they can no longer ignore the market. In December 1997, Steve Wynn's Mirage and Treasure Island casinos, which had never issued commemorative chips, came out with chips made by Paul-Son commemorating illusionists Siegfried & Roy and circus performers Cirque Du Soleil, respectively.
DeGregorio, for one, disputes the opinion that casinos are issuing too many different commemorative chips in editions that are too great in number. "Maybe there's not enough collectors," he observes. "There are two sides to the coin. If there were 10,000 collectors, then there wouldn't be enough chips."
To remedy the situation, Paul-Son has entered into a joint venture called Brand One with DeBartolo Entertainment to produce oversized, nongaming and nondenominational commemorative chips featuring sports figures from the National Football League, National Basketball Association and NASCAR auto racing. The first such chip, or trading disk as Paul-Son calls it, was produced in an extremely limited quantity in 1994 and given away to San Francisco Forty Niners' stadium superbox holders. (DeBartolo owns the Forty Niners.) The latest trading disk was manufactured for the May 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. In the future, Paul-Son envisions the disks, which are made from the same material as its casino chips, being used as high-tech tickets to major sporting events, such as the Super Bowl. The disks, which would be imprinted with a variety of security features, would be kept by ticket holders as a memento. "We plan to go to the market and create the next collectible, and that market will be 50 times bigger than casino chips," says DeGregorio.
Whether that will be good for the traditional chip collector remains to be seen. What's assured is that many more people will be clamoring for a little piece of Havana, Vegas and Atlantic City in the coming years.
Barry Rosenberg is a New York-based journalist, specializing in business and technology.